SXSW FILM 2016
By Don Simpson | March 15, 2016
Director: Julia Hart
Writers: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Starring: Lily Rabe, Rob Huebel, Oscar Nuñez, Timothée Chalamet, Lili Reinhart
Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe) is a high-school English teacher who cares deeply about the success of her students, thus creating some complexities regarding her personal boundaries. Single and lonely, the thirtysomething teacher chaperones three of her students on a trip to a weekend drama competition. If any of the students do well at the competition, their high school might just reinstate its drama program. (The political subtext of the high school no longer having any arts programs is quite profound.)
The three students begin the journey as cinematic stereotypes: the bossy goody two-shoes, Margot (Lili Reinhart); the sweetly gay, Sam (Anthony Quintal); and the emotionally troubled rebel, Billy (Timothee Chalamet). Thankfully, as we spend time with them, the teenagers open up to us and become more rounded and developed. This all seems like part of writer-director Julia Hart’s greater plan — start with the classical stereotypes, then expand exponentially from there. Hart also tricks us into thinking that this will be a coming-of-age story about the teenagers; instead, it is Rachel who is given the opportunity to mature and develop. The teenagers are quite wise and self-aware; they are intelligent and quite cognizant of the world around them. They are taking their lives (and the future of their school) into their own hands. They set a idealized example for kids today.
Miss Stevens tackles an oft-told story in a refreshingly subtle and normalized manner, approaching the classic student-teacher romance from a very unique angle. Hart presents the subject in such a way that the moral grayness between right and wrong is much more pronounced, and by breaking convention from historical representations of this material, Hart creates a narrative arc that is not at all predictable.
Hart presents her subjects with the perfect amount of tenderness. Miss Stevens never seems over-sentimentalized or saccharine. Topical concerns, such as LGBT issues and depression, are handled beautifully while never distracting from the primary plot line.